Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is the only moment, I know this is the only moment – Thich Nhat Hanh.
This time of lockdown has not just been about a culinary skill or a language learned and art, music, book, film, play or dance enjoyed. There is the discovery that life is – quite literally – about breath.
Those distressing images of Covid-19 patients buried under the equipment pumping oxygen into their lungs – if ever there was a time to remind ourselves of the importance of breath while we still have health, it is now. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but stranded far away from home in London, I decided to learn yoga during lockdown. In the midst of warrior pose wobbles, I found the joy of long breaths, of the deep inhale and exhale like waves rushing to join the sea and then emptying their burden onto the shore.
It is said that one inhales the future and exhales the past. The present must then surely lie in the hold, an apt metaphor, for everything is on hold. Up until now, I had considered breathing to be a natural, involuntary act. After researching, I found that an active adult can breathe about twenty times a minute and an average of up to fifty thousand per day. To be mindful of breaths (as many as I could manage) was always going to be challenging.
Some more research later, and I found the old English word for breath was similar to the German brodem, or vapour or steam. As we breathe consciously, we become conscious not just of heart and lungs, but of the air. Ironic, then, that as the air becomes cleaner outdoors during the pandemic, we are forced to stay indoors, the words “a breath of fresh air” never more evocative. Or the renewed significance of phrases such as, “to take a deep breath, catch one’s breath, pause for breath.”
It is a sobering thought that our lives will only be as long as the number of our breaths. No less, no more. Maya Angelou said, “As long as you’re breathing, it’s never too late to do some good.” We owe it to ourselves to breathe well, but also to do good. While we still have the choice.
Saumya Balsari is an award-winning author, a theorist of mass culture and a former newspaper columnist. She is a Senior Member of Darwin College, Cambridge University, and on the advisory board of Tata Literature Live.